Towards Awakening (forthcoming)

Film director Rob Sinclair, half-Spanish, half-Scottish, lies in a coma in an Edinburgh hospital after a car crash where the driver died. Beginning with his partner, Catalan businessman Daniel Permanyer, people close to Sinclair or involved in shooting the film, reflect on their memories of him and on the dramas currently taking place in each of their lives – Fiona, Gaelic language assistant, Sinclair’s bosom friend Claire, internationally famed photographer Calum, unofficial research assistant Desmond O’Sullivan, the mother of the man who was driving the car, arts officer David Mirren, Rob’s dysfunctional, alcoholic sister and her daughter Rachel. The chorus of voices grows richer until, when nearly everyone has given up hope…
two extracts
Rhona and I have known each other for twenty-one years. And been married for fifteen. We met soon after she left school. Retrospective jealousy still rears its head. I’ve never asked what, if anything, happened during that time in London. We weren’t officially together, though we met up regularly and had sex every time we did. What a funny bugger I am! My hackles rising, even at this distance in time, because I think she might have gone to bed with the guy we were discussing.
I had got what she was driving at. We were making love more often than usual because of Rob, lying lifeless, though not clinically dead, in a hospital bed on the city outskirts. Life, death and sex are intertwined in such unfathomable ways. But is one day on and one day off so often? After fifteen years of marriage? Who am I to say? Maybe it is, ask my wife.
You’d think we wouldn’t have that much more to say to each other after so many years together. Apart, that is, from the usual joys, downers and surprises of living under the same roof as two kids. It’s got past the point where we can hope to control, or even influence them. The name of the game these days is negotiation. Plus a judicious dose of emotional, or preferably, financial blackmail, as and when needed. A distance intervenes that’s not entirely comfortable. It demands bridging. You have to rediscover, month  by month, week by week, how you and your wife can talk to each other. Marrying Rhona didn’t mean marrying another person, it meant tens of other people. She can be three different women in the course of a single day. The challenge isn’t so much finding things to say as working out a way of saying them.
I like times like this in the morning best. After sex, my wife enjoys talking. All the little bits and pieces of stuff she didn’t get round to sharing in the humdrum rush of every day, ideas that came into her head, things from the past she suddenly remembers, come tumbling out. She likes making love and loses herself in the enjoyment. That’s what turns me on. Watching her, being the catalyst. One spin-off is, for an hour or so afterwards, she stops filtering. Things emerge in a way they wouldn’t otherwise, like the stuff about Rob. Children are open like that, when they are small, and begin discovering the world. With my wife it’s a sort of blessed intermission, till her superego can take charge once more.
‘I got asked again if you were gay’, she said.
I burst out laughing. A spontaneous reaction. It was when Rob and me started work on our second film that he asked if I had considered guilt by association. The first won a prize for the camera work and he was desperate to have me for the next one, he made no secret about that. The question left me mystified.
‘Look, if you and I work together again, after such a short space of time, people are going to start whispering. You’ve no idea how stupid gossip can be. They’re going to think you’re gay. That we’re together, or something along those lines.’
‘I’ve got two kids’, I spluttered. ‘Isn’t it bloody obvious? Don’t they see the circles under my eyes because I sat up all last night while the younger one practically coughed her guts out?’
‘That’s not the point’, Rob said, shaking his head. ‘You have to watch out. It’s up to me to warn you. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.’
And he was right.
‘I hope you told them the rumours were true,’ I said.
It does no harm knowing your wife can still be jealous. Approaching middle age brings its own specific insecurities. Looking at myself in the shaving mirror every morning, it’s a distinctly older Calum that I see. The girls at work no longer come on to me quite as heavily, or as frequently, as they used to. My dick could have gone a lot of places it never went. Not that I regret it. If Rhona is jealous of Rob at times, it’s not a matter of sex. There’s a deeper level of complicity she feels shut out from. It bugs her far more than a brief fling with the wardrobe manageress would. Though she’d be capable of hacking my balls off for that.
 ‘There are many kinds of love in the world,’ I said, sounding just like a Dad. ‘I’ve never fancied him. Or fancied any man. You know that. And anyway, he’s got Daniel now, hasn’t he? It was such a relief when someone pinned him down at last. I could have been his older brother, longing for him to settle and put down roots!’
Rhona’s face had clouded over, then brightened again. She was off on a different track, as is her wont.
‘It’s a hoot’, she said, ‘having people cast me in the role of the long-suffering wife, married to a closet gay, starved for sex, slaving her guts out to keep the household going, hiding everything from the kids.’
‘With obligatory church attendance every Sunday morning,’ I put in.
‘And strictly spiritual consolation from the minister,’ she said, ‘unless she happens to be a chancel-chaser.’
My wife picked that expression up at one of her coffee mornings, a month or so ago. She liked it so much she drops it into the conversation whenever she gets the chance. One of her friends has a gay brother who’s a minister. The poor guy’s been jumped on more than once by enthusiastic female parishioners who are no less keen on his looks than they are on his sermons. Doesn’t have the right antennae, so can’t see the mischief coming.
Both of us were laughing by this stage. A silence followed. The atmosphere got serious again.
‘Are you worried what’s it’s going to be like for me if he dies?’
‘Oh, he won’t die’, she said, with a conviction that sent goosepimples running down my back.
I never challenge my wife when she makes similar pronouncements. I just haven’t got it in me. The light of a Scottish summer morning is intense but, how can I put it, thin. It’s one of the best kept secrets this country has, though our painters have done their damnedest to let the rest of the world know. Thin and somehow cutting, like a sharp, honed blade. You’d think the best season for ghost stories would be the depths of winter, but it’s not, midsummer can be far more creepy. Maybe a cloud had passed over the sun. The goosepimples were also caused by the outline of Rhona’s face in the spooky light.
‘It’s not the kind of thing Rob would do’, she added. ‘He’ll wake up. The question is, when.’
‘It only depends on him?’ I asked.
No answer came.
‘And if he does’, I continued, ‘what was all this about? The accident, the man next to him at the driving wheel dying on the spot, the coma, a film that looks as if it’ll never be finished?’
‘Presumably he’s finding out the answers as we speak’, she said, reflectively.
‘I always said you had witches among your forebears,’ I mumbled and grabbed hold of her, pulling her close to stop her making any more of those uncanny, disquieting pronouncements.

I’d find it hard to say how much contact Rob had with the two sisters after coming to live in Spain. For some years, I would guess, he clamped the lid down firmly on everything he’d left behind in Scotland, the great-aunts in Uist no less than his father, not to mention the expensive school where he had been a boarder. Odd how, having lived together for seven years, or rather, shared a home, he must have been away about a third of the time on average, significant segments are a closed book to me. I can try to piece them together. Mostly it has to be supposition. They say you can get to know somebody inside out. I would say, when you get really close to a person, and that rarely happens with more than two or three in the course of a lifetime, you realise how profoundly unknowable they are. If there are parts of themselves they never come to terms with, never summon up the courage to explore, how could we claim they hold no secrets for us? Or hope to guess how they might have behaved in the past, before we met them, when, if the truth be told, they were actually someone else, not entirely separate, but subtly different nonetheless?
If you ask me, Rob didn’t fly back for Cassie’s funeral. He may not even have heard about her death. To the best of my knowledge, he had no contact with his father from his early twenties onwards. That’s one funeral he definitely didn’t attend. His father died a few months before we became partners. I was deeply shocked to learn he’d chosen not to go.
‘But he was your father!’ I spluttered.
‘After everything that happened? Don’t you have to earn the right to be a father? To be treated like one?’
I’ve had time to think these matters through. Today I’d react differently, to a child not attending the cremation of a parent who abused them. Then it left me gasping. It actually made me afraid of Rob. If he could talk about his father with such apparent lack of feeling, how was he going to talk about me one day? Now I know the indifference masked pure hatred. The hatred, being a genuine, unavoidable, human emotion, was easier to accept, when it emerged. His steely, dispassionate detachment was unnerving.
It was as if the great-aunts and his father, though they had stood on opposite sides – at any rate, Cassie did – got bound up with one another. Flying over to visit Flora was a species of atonement. She didn’t recognise him when we arrived. Maybe Rob had got news that she was likely to die soon. As I review the past, I realise with a shock how much he kept secret from me, especially during those first years. The institution she was in wasn’t private, but publicly managed. Perfectly clean and decent, smoothly run and with a welcoming atmosphere. But I can’t forget the smell of urine hanging in the air, or the lost look of the ageing men and women, staggering past on zimmer frames, or propping themselves up with the help of long railings attached to the walls. And the vacant faces, the way they sat in their metal chairs upholstered in yellow plastic, heads rotating slowly, eyes unseeing, like some species of underwater flora, shifting gradually in the slow currents at the bottom of the sea.
When we were about to get up and go, the woman emitted a series of noises, incomprehensible to me. Rob understood. Something happened to his face. Like waking up, or a wave washing over it. Or else, a veil falling away.
He answered her. The noises he made were equally incomprehensible. And they started talking to one another, talking and laughing. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. It was so unsettling, listening to Rob speak a language I had never heard before. The expression on Flora’s face grew animated. She even lifted her hand, with unmistakable, womanly elegance, gesturing to illustrate a point she was making, or perhaps an anecdote she was recalling.
The conversation faded away as unexpectedly as it had begun. Rob stared at Flora, who subsided back into the same, still trance we had found her in. He could have been watching her disappear, retreating slowly out of sight. He’s saying goodbye, was what I thought.
We clattered noisily down two flights of stairs to the ground-floor lobby. Once outside, I called a taxi.
‘Was that Gaelic?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said, nodding his head. ‘We were speaking Gaelic to each other.’

‘Whyte’s fiction explores issues of hybridity and identity and, in so doing, gives voice to the possibilities and challenges of a Scottish cosmopolitanism’ Fiona Wilson

© 2021 Christopher Whyte. All Rights Reserved | Designed by Jarka Jones

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